The next time you pick up Eat the State! or The Washington Free Press—if you're crafty enough to find a copy in this town—thank a very unusual real estate agent named Michael Gross.
During the past dozen years, Gross has donated a third of a million dollars—fully half of his sales commissions—to dozens of progressive organizations around the city. Several thousand have gone to help ETS! and WFP, Seattle's premiere radical publications, survive in an independent media environment dominated by fad-mongering rags and self-absorbed 'zines. The Free Press, an award-winning bimonthly, is now the proud owner of a laser printer. Eat the State!, a scrappy weekly, has nearly made it into the black, a goal Gross cares so much about that he recently became ETS!'s accountant.
Leave it to a former gravedigger and term-paper ghostwriter from Manhattan to become a sugar daddy for Seattle progressives. Raised on the Lower East Side, Gross entered the University of Chicago shortly after the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention. During a 10-day sit-in at the school's administration building, Gross took the job of "doorman": His job, he recalls with a smile, was "keeping out the right-wingers who rushed the door."
A job at Seattle's Little School brought Gross west in 1972, but teaching couldn't hold him. He did "this, that, and other" for the next decade: digging graves at a Jewish cemetery, working in a pipe-fabricating plant, and writing research papers for college students—the job that started him on the road to philanthropy. With the $700 he earned writing a master's thesis about middle-class heroin addicts for a nursing student, Gross bought a 50 percent stake in what eventually became the largest term-paper company in the United States. He went on to run a travel agency, a book company (which published his popular The How to Go to College Book in 1978), and the original Seattle Filmworks.
Gross cashed out in 1980, started buying and selling property, and acquired a real estate license; he's now affiliated with Windermere's Bellevue West office. It was while tabling for an anti-nuclear organization on the Ave that he first thought of pledging his commissions to progressive groups. His first donation was his entire paycheck, about $3,000. Some 200 deals and $350,000 in donations—usually half his commission—have followed. "To walk into a place and hand people a check for $2,000," Gross says, "it's overwhelming—for me and for them."
Environmental, social service, educational, religious, and ethnic organizations—more than 100 groups in all—have benefited from Gross' commitment to political and social change. Many more are likely to follow. "There's about two degrees of separation in Seattle's left-progressive community," he says. "A certain number of people around the city know who I am. When they're ready to buy or sell a home, they'll call me."
Another shade of green at The Seattle Times
The four Seattle Times reporters who spent seven months investigating questionable forestland swaps between government officials and private developers must be wondering whether their six-part, front-page series "Trading Away the West: How the Public Is Losing Trees, Land, and Money" (9/2710/3) was worth the effort. The brilliantly reported and written package exemplifies how the news media can deconstruct a complicated problem and hand policymakers solutions to fix it. The Times' editorial board, however, seems to disagree.
Five days after the series concluded, Times editorialists called a proposed land swap between the US Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co.—the largest Northwest swap in 50 years—an "extraordinary opportunity" to preserve forestland, even though much of Plum Creek's property has already been logged. While subpristine, the 62,000 acres taxpayers stand to receive in the deal straddle I-90, an acquisition that nicely dovetails with the mission of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a "public-private partnership" that's creating a telegenic though ecologically dubious 90-mile-long swath of foliage from Cle Elum to Elliott Bay.
Like many recent taxpayer-subsidized initiatives, the Greenway is a boutique project of Seattle's corporate and political establishments. Trust president Jim Ellis' top two deputies are high-ranking executives with Washington Mutual Bank (the nation's largest savings-and-loan) and Weyerhaeuser (the state's third-largest company). The organization's board of directors features the well-connected CEO of Penwest Pharmaceuticals, Tom Hamachek—also a Times board member. Other directors hail from Boeing, Key Bank, Puget Sound Energy—even Plum Creek. Serving on the Greenway Trust's advisory board is Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce veteran George Duff, a close friend of Times publisher Frank Blethen and one of the city's most quietly effective power brokers. Environmental groups are sparsely represented.
The Times' editorial support of the greenway is not just an insult to reporters Eric Nalder, Deb Nelson, Jim Simon, and Danny Westneat. It's also an insult to environmental advocates who are offering holistic solutions to the Northwest's natural-resource crisis—not cosmetic boondoggles like the Mountains to Sound Greenway. The Times editorial writers should take another whack at this one.